Chapter 1: "First Impressions"
History is never dead. It crawls its way into our present and shapes our future.
That was Anias' favorite expression. My tutor's words found its way into today's lesson. What kept my eyes from growing too heavy was the occasional breeze that disturbed the curtains, flashing swaths of green foliage from behind. By midday, I struggled to remain attentive, but I dare not sleep on him unless I wanted to get a beating.
He asked me what I thought about the expression of how 'history is never dead.' While still looking at my scrolls sprawled on the table, I gave a half-hearted "I suppose you are right" reply. His thin lips straightened into a tight line across his leathery skin. He stepped closer to my writing desk; his beady eyes boring into mines. That response would not suffice!
"You can push the scroll to the side." My eyes widened. It was too early for us to end, but I obliged.
"Close your eyes. Now think about a memory you still carry with you."
I obeyed Anias, who stood over my writing desk, his voice low but firm. I needed no scrolls or wax tablets for this exercise. Just memories. My mind rushed to one of my earliest memories; when I was four.
I was no longer in the tablinum, the once private sanctuary of father that became our makeshift school. Instead, I was in my bedroom. My room would be completely swallowed in darkness if not for the wavering light from the clay oil lamp perched on the windowsill. I remember mother coming inside to sit with me like she did previous nights. I would expect some legendary tale.
I wanted a happy ending. Every child did. I stared into the brown orbs gazing back at me. She smiled as she took a seat beside me on the bed. I clasped my hands, waiting for her to recite another legend.
"There once was a mysterious island hidden in the Great Sea. On the island lived an enchanted goddess with raven black hair and piercing blue eyes. She would lie in wait for her victims to arrive on her shores. She would keep whatever man that crossed her path prisoner and force him to hide the secrets that lie within the island."
"What secrets?" I blurted. I leaned into my mother's bosom. I looked up, meeting her eyes in the glowing lamplight just above my head. It was the only thing illuminating the room. For me, light meant safety. It meant warmth. But now, it only illuminated the mystery glistening in the brownish orbs staring back at me.
"I cannot tell you. It is a secret, Troy," mother whispered.
"What is a secret mum?"
She flashed him a toothy grin. "A secret is something hidden that you do not want others to know about."
"Like this," I said, pulling out a hand buried under the linen sheet. There in my hands laid a golden locket.
"Where did you get that?" mother exclaimed, placing a hand on her bosom.
"I can't tell you. It's a secret," I said, likely with a mischievous glint in my eyes. She raked her hands through my curls before grabbing the locket away from his grasp. I loved it when she stroked my hair.
It was during those moments at bedtime that my mother would come inside the room, sit on my bed, and tell me stories. Each time I would curl up with my two older brothers or it would be just be me who would listen to the tales. She would always save the ending for the next night. I hoped that the last story about the boy who never woke up from the sleeping potion would have a happy ending.
"And the boy was finally able—"
This time there was no happy ending. In fact, there was no ending to this tale. There was no storyteller to make it all better.
"Troy. Do you have questions about your assignment?"
My name rolling from his tongue jolted me from the past. What assignment? I missed his last rambling statements about history and how events affect us now. And now I had no idea what the assignment was about. If I asked a question, I risked revealing I was not paying attention. He would be displeased and write up a negative report to send to my father. I could already hear my father's lecture about me not living up to his expectations.
But something about the way I looked must have evoked sympathy, because he repeated the assignment before remarking his apologies for making me do that exercise. Maybe he knew the memories that brought me the most pain had surfaced.
I picked up my stylus and wrote in my leather-bound codex my assignment.
Write an essay on how history lives in the present.
I nodded and thanked him for the lesson. But my mind was not thinking about sitting at my desk penning an essay. My mind was outside in the green expanse that surrounded my home. I left my scrolls and books on the stool for the slaves to put away and rushed to the expanse calling for me. I was looking for an escape. Instead, a flood of memories washed over me. They were not the terrifying ones from the Quake. Rather, these were mostly pleasant. The ones where our family was united and happy. Before Hades took my mother, leaving my brothers and me with a brokenhearted father. I closed my eyes, waiting for tears to brim. But they did not come. I was ten years too late.
The sound of my name snapped me to reality. I swung around to face the familiar yet harsh tone from my brother.
"What?" I grumbled.
His brownish-green orbs leveled with mines. "Stop idling and move out the way so the slave can let this horse pass through." He gestured to the slave trailing behind, who was guiding the horse as its hooves swished against the damp grass.
"Apollus, where are you taking that horse?" I questioned.
He rolled his eyes. "Why do you ask such stupid questions? I am going out to town to meet with friends at the Baths and have some fun." For us, we had our private baths in the convenience of our domus. We had almost everything we needed in our residence, including our very own latrine. However, public baths though were far grander yet too crowded for my liking, particularly during the prime hours. I could easily stay within the confines of my home for weeks at a time and be content. But it was a good excuse to go out and see old acquaintances. I needed an escape right about now.
"Can I come too?" Apollus turned back to stare back at his friend Titus, who gave him a wave from the roadside. Standing next to him was my oldest brother, Barbarius, who was motioning for Apollus to hurry.
"I am sorry there is no more room for you in the chariot." If Apollus was trying to sound sympathetic, he failed miserably at it.
"So, you replaced me with Titus," I said, stifling the disappointment in my voice. I wished my brothers would stop treating me like a little boy. With each passing day, my appearance resembled less that of the boy I once was. But at fourteen years of age, I was not yet a "man." Once Apollus turned sixteen, his status elevated to a new level; a level I now envied. If only I was sixteen! Maybe I would be taken seriously.
"I must go, Troy. Perhaps you can find another horse in the stable."
"Why am I always the one that has to be left out?" I mumbled. Apollus ignored me as the slave boy hitched the horses to his bronze chariot. I watched my two brothers and their friend mount the chariot. They were laughing amongst themselves. The way I used to laugh with Apollus and Barbarius. But those days were long gone. They replaced me.
"Go find your own friends to associate with," Apollus scoffed as the horses began their gentle stride. I picked up a flat rock from the ground and hurled it at Apollus' temple!
I blinked again, and they were already gone. I just imagined that I threw something at Apollus. I wished I could have carried it out. Then suddenly I felt a twinge of guilt for even thinking such a wicked thought. I dropped the rock I scooped up, and I walked towards home when I heard a faint neigh. I veered off into the stable which was built off from the road to check for horses. The smell of manure and hay still lingered in the air as I stepped inside the wooden structure. There was one horse left, sticking its head out of the stall to watch me before nibbling on whatever was on the floor. There were no slaves to escort me around. But I was not a child anymore. Besides, I was almost fifteen. I unhinged the latch to his stall and walked right into his enclosure.
"Come on boy, I need you to take me to Apathia where my brothers are," I said, patting his long coarse mane. I gripped onto the reins and hoisted my weight over the saddle like I did many times before, although this time on the new horse Sagrus. "Come on, I need you to move," I ordered. After a couple of failed attempts, I pulled the reins hard. Then suddenly the horse jerked and galloped wildly out the open gate and into the open pasture.
I shouted to him to slow down, only for the horse to ignore me. Just then, Odydus walked right into the path of the horse. I yanked my reins to the left, as the horse barrelled towards him head on.
"Halt Sagrus!" Odydus shouted. Immediately the horse jolted to a stop.
"What are you doing riding that horse?" he asked.
"I wanted to ride to town, but the other horses are being groomed or are taken. And besides, you do not have to worry about me. I am not a boy anymore."
"You are still a boy in my eyes. Well, at least until you turn sixteen like your brother Apollus, then I can officially call you a man. But since you are the son of Acropolus, my master, it is my duty to protect you and your brothers. Especially after you know what happened." I heaved a sigh while I dismounted the horse. I did not want to be reminded of it, but the daily reminders were inevitable. The Tribute Memorial was coming in a matter of weeks, whether or not I was ready. Usually, I was good at keeping my emotions and actions in control, but this time of year was especially hard. I thought the next year would be easier. But I have been saying that for ten years now.
"Come, take this horse over here by the fence." His voice snapped me from my head.
I shook my head. "What? You mean that."
He nodded. "But," he added, "I want to take you to the auction in Apathia. I have a surprise waiting for you!"
Apathia, which was the administrative capital of the island, was a second home for us. If a procession or a trial was being conducted, you would hear about it in the town square; the direction Odydus was taking me to. I wanted to go to the public baths, but I suppose he could not wait to show me his surprise. Odydus was more than a steward, he was a family friend. I trusted that he had my best interests at heart.
He halted briefly to let some patrons cross the narrow roads with baskets brimming with cloths dyed various shades of red, blue, and green. They must come from the fuller, I thought. Once I discovered from Odydus how they got our clothes so clean, I never looked at a fuller shop the same way.
I could still hear Apollus blurting into our conversation when I was twelve, "Whose piss they used this time?"
"Here we are," called Odydus. The sudden jolt brought me back to the present. I looked out the open chariot. Patrons and nobles with their togas promenaded the market square that formed the Forum. The open square teemed with merchants and patrons spread around the inner parameter of the civic buildings. I remembered how different things were several years ago when I walked these very streets. After the earthquake, many of the buildings were still being repaired after being damaged by the Quake. Now it appeared as if nothing happened as life resumed in the marketplaces. Life was moving on. Now I had to keep up.
"It is amazing how some things stay the same," I uttered softly to myself as I glanced at the marble Basilica jutting over the Forum skyline. I was slowly seeing the truth in my Greek tutor's words. There was much history to be told in these places I visited as a child.
Odydus escorted me from the chariot to a booth pitched close to a stall where jewels and precious stones were being sold. I followed him to the entrance, only for Odydus to instruct me to wait outside. I ambled over to where our chariot, rested. Next to it was an iron cage; large enough for at least a large bull or horse to stand in. I expected to find an animal, but it was empty.
When I asked a nearby sentinel what happened to the animals, he smirked before pointing across to the other side of the Forum square where a crowd gathered around a raised platform.
A loud voice repeated the forceful call from the platform. I swung around to find a man weaving through a crowd pressed against the makeshift stage. As he broke free from the crowd, my jaw dropped.
He was naked.
The sentinel guard besides me muttered curses under his breath before hurdling towards the runner.
Why was he running naked? The same guard by the booth charged headlong into the man. The nude man made a sharp turn to the left, only to be tackled from behind by another guard. The two men came crashing into the concrete. I eased closer to get a better look as the guard wrestled with the man who fought his way to his knees. Before the runner could gain the upper hand in their struggle, the first guard who missed his chance earlier dove in to grab a fistful of the man by the hair before slamming his head against the pavement.
More armed guards mobilized from all corners of the Forum as the crowds circling around them gasped and jeered. Several taller figures jostled and elbowed in front, blocking my view. Grunts and moans spilled from the guards. A low guttural wail escaped from the heap of bodies, sending a shiver down my back. It sounded like some dying animal, only it wasn't an animal.
From the frenzied cries and murmurs, a voice emerged from the chaos. An air of authority colored his words as the jeers and cries lowered to a shushed murmur. "Citizens of Aegea, there is nothing to worry about. Everything is under control."
I could not see him among the crowds, but his low, deep voice was enough to calm my rattled nerves. As long as he was here, he could restore the order and peace the island thrived on.
Moments later, Odydus reappeared with a sentinel donning a full metal breastplate over his tunic. Between them was a young man. Like the runner, there was nothing to cover his exposed skin where the sun darkened his arms and lower torso to a varnished bronze. His only attempt at modesty was clutching his callused hands over his groin. The shackles on his ankles scraped the concrete with the sweeping motion of his bare feet. The three approached me with an eerie calm considering what just took place. Had they not heard the commotion outside the booth?
A man with a bulging money purse popped his head outside the booth to thank Odydus for his payment. That must be the private dealer.
Odydus pointed at the young man, who still wore a placard around his neck with Greek and Latin inscriptions. "Now Troy, meet Alexander. This is your new body slave. He will be at your service today at the Baths, accompany you to places and offer any personal help needed. I instructed him on your routine and his duties." I remembered the older slave he must have replaced. He was an older, frail, yet kind fellow who looked out for me when I would venture outside. I knew him since I was a small boy. But after he got sick, he was of no use to our family. So father dismissed him. As far as most were concerned, an old sick slave was of no good anymore. At least this slave had enough meat on his bones to fill out the tunic Odydus handed him to try on.
The slave could hardly look me in the eye. I muttered "thanks" at my father's newest purchase. He was relatively young, perhaps a couple of years older than I, so there was still an opportunity for him to be trained in whatever task was given to him. Not like he had much of a choice.
The armed guard bent down to unbound the slave's hands and feet so he could change in front of us.
"Are you afraid that he might run?" I asked the guard. Odydus shot me a disapproving look. I lowered my gaze. I did not mean for my comment to poke fun at the situation that unfolded. After all, what appeared to be a slave ran from an auction like some wild animal.
"Stay close to him," Odydus ordered. "I will meet you before sundown. Do not be late. We have an important guest that we want to make a good impression with." Father had mentioned earlier in the week that we would have a special guest. Even though father would not divulge a lot of details on where this guest was from, I had a feeling this guest differed from the other "special guests" we had before.
I nodded to Odydus and then turned to the slave, who refused to look me in the eye. Cutting across to the other end of the Forum was the Bathhouse. Together we walked to the Bathhouse in silence, which was more of a complex of smaller baths, gymnasiums, parlors, and even a library. It was only when it was time to enter that we separated for the first time. One entry for the freeman. Another side entry for the slaves.
After paying my fee, sunlight greeted me from the high vaulted ceilings. Although it was impressive to see the dome roof glimmering above, it was the next stretch of the hallway leading away from the grand foyer to the baths that the walls and floors truly came to life. Paneled frescos graced the wall with depictions of scenic vineyards while the tiled mosaics colored every step. With every story unfolding along the walls, I could almost lose myself except for the throngs of bodies pressed into each other.
The place was teeming with men of all ages, sizes, and stations. As long as you were a freeman, your station here did not matter. Through the throng, I spotted familiar faces. Some of them were prominent officials that worked with father like Gaius and Felix, who gave a simple nod in my direction before carrying on with their exchanges. The younger ones I recognized to be acquaintances of Barbarius and Apollus. Some still had their togas on while the older men paraded around naked from the changing rooms that branched off from the hallway. At least here they had an acceptable reason to be naked.
I forgot my slave was even following from a close distance until he bumped into me as we entered the changing room at the same time. It was rather rude of him to remain mute, but I reminded myself he was a "new purchase" that needed to be trained. I clamored to claim a spot on one bench before more men filled the windowless room with a musty odor. I ordered him to help lift my tunic off. Stripped down to mere loincloth, I no longer was the odd man in the room with a tunic.
The first stop was to get the customary oil slathered on me. I directed my slave on where to apply the oil, although he applied a generous amount from head to toe. After the oil treatment left me glistening, I was now ready to join the rest of the patrons into the open-air gymnasium.
The gymnasium was a rectangular courtyard just as I remembered it from times past. In the middle was a long grassy field where most of the men gathered. Men on the outer edge of the gymnasium already paired up in the sand pits that composed the palestra which we referred to as the "pit." Some men sat on stone benches spaced evenly between the marble columns to lift weights. According to Barbarius, the men handling weights had the best vantage point from anyone else in the gymnasium as they sat in the front row to the wrestlers and boxers who exchanged blows, sometimes with bare-knuckles. Barbarius would know of all people. Lifting weights was one of his favorite pastime besides the more physical exercises that involved grappling or punching someone.
At least the overhanging portico shielded the men handling weights from the sun while the rest of the men scattered on the field running or playing ball endured the brunt of the heat or cold depending on the season. Thankfully, the spring air was warm enough to exercise without shivering.
Across the field, three men juggled multiple hand weights from one of the storage rooms. At this hour, most of the equipment was likely taken. The other young men who were not weightlifting were already paired off in the pit, ready to compete. Sitting on one of the stone benches was Barbarius. I wanted to ask him if there were anymore weights, but another man approached him before I could say a word. I recognized him to be Maximus, one of his contemporaries. Sand clung to my brother's oiled skin as he scratched his scalp, shaking loose the sand hiding in his short dark mane. The two exchanged a few words. Whatever he said must have prompted Barbarius to get up and follow him to the middle of the pit. Everyone had a partner or contender now. Except me.
I decided I was going to run around the perimeter of the courtyard since you did not need someone for that activity, but then at the corner of my eyes, I saw a group of three boys around my age tossing a ball back and forth. It was a simple pleasure that was familiar. It was a game I used to play all the time with my brothers.
I told myself I was going to watch them toss the bloated sack around before running a few laps around the courtyard. Each boy had their way of throwing the ball as they took turns passing it. Sometimes the order of who threw the ball would change. When that happened, things got interesting. One boy threw the ball short, causing the other young man to dive to his knees only for the ball to kiss the ground before he could scoop it. He muttered curses at his companion, who was now laughing. Without warning, he hurled the ball at the laughing fellow's head. His opponent ducked, sending the ball hurtling towards me. Without thinking, I caught it.
"Good catch," remarked one of the boys who remained civil throughout the competitive ball tossing. I had no choice but to catch it, otherwise I would be smacked!
I immediately recognized the face behind the voice. Marcus. The other boy—the one in the sour mood—was Silus. I saw them both before at the Baths, particularly Marcus, who would occasionally attend our dinner parties. But our interactions amounted no more to the customary greetings and polite conversations.
But I did not know the name of the boy walking towards me. His face brightened into a smile as if he was welcoming a good friend.
I placed the ball in his hands. He placed it back into mines.
"You want to play?" he asked.
The question caught me off guard. I was not expecting them to want me to join. I nodded.
He placed a hand on my shoulder. "Good! You can replace Silus. He does not take well to losing."
"I heard that!" he snapped. "I would rather do something else right now. I will see you in the pit later," he said with an edge to his tone. Silus stormed off to sit at one of the side benches facing the pit where my brother and Maximus were sparring.
The boy shrugged, turning his gaze from Silus to me. "So what do you say?"
I decided I could always run another time by myself. Today I joined my peers. During the ball toss, I kept thinking back to my trip to the Forum. The image of the naked slave running away before being tackled and beaten resurfaced. Had these boys seen or heard about the commotion? If they knew, their conversation never hinted at it. I tried to bring it up, only to be interrupted as they shared embarrassing stories at the Baths. Bringing up the account about the runaway slave would be out of place in this discussion. Perhaps it was not that important. Since the problem was contained, there was no immediate threat to public safety. The slave would be punished and returned to the highest bidder, and the usual order of things would resume.
The game soon ended, and I joined the other young men to get their dirt and oil scraped off with a strigil before being allowed into the baths. My bare feet slapped against the cold tiles as my toes teetered at the pool's edge. They really did not add any heat to this. As I stood there watching my wavering reflection, I heard someone say, "Go in already!" Before I could react, someone shoved me from behind. With flailing arms, I plunged headlong into the chilled water, swallowing water as my body sunk below the surface. Both hands clapped on the pool floor, my knees just grazing the concrete. I flung myself to the surface, choking up water.
"Feels good does it?"
There was that voice again! Rubbing my eyes, I swung around to face the direction of the chuckles and taunts.
I grumbled under my breath before sputtering out more water from my lungs. I blinked away the water clouding my vision to get a good look at the boys who varied in height. Nearly all of them were starting to grow hair everywhere on their bodies except their faces with the exception of a few who were growing stubble around their chin. They exchanged grins and laughs among themselves before turning their backs to me. Whoever it was that pushed me, was old enough to know better.
There was no use taking on a crowd that size, so I stayed in the water, watching them leave one by one. I decided my time at the cold baths had run its course. Already waiting for me was my slave boy. Good. He was putting himself to good use already without being directed. One of the young fellows laughing suddenly looked back at me before taking a brisk walk back to the changing room. I ignored him and made my way to the next room that housed the warm bath. After some time soaking, I was ready for the hot baths. Once I walked through the corridor that connected the two rooms, I bumped into someone from behind.
"Sorry. Please forgive me."
"Apology accepted." While subdued, I immediately recognized the tone. The young man, who appeared to be my age, seemed unfazed as he turned around to continue on his way. Suddenly there was a face behind the voice. He must be the same one that offered me the ball at the gymnasium. He was also the one that pushed me. I tapped him on the shoulder.
He swung around to face me.
"Were you the one that pushed me into the pool?" I asked.
His brows scrunched into a frown. "What are you talking about?"
"I recognize your voice. You are the same person who stared at me as I was getting out of the cold baths."
"And. Anyone could have stared at you. There are hundreds if not thousands of people in here."
"Then why did you leave that group of boys that were laughing by the cold baths?"
"I was not even there!" he exclaimed. Why was he lying? It was clear he was the offender. For someone emboldened to assault a prince, he was not only a coward but a liar.
"You do not have to lie. I saw you."
He shook his head. "I think you are confused."
My voice tightened. "I know you pushed me. I saw you do it."
"I think you are seeing things," he countered.
"Why did you do it? I did nothing to you," I blurted.
He stopped in his tracks, throwing his hands up. "I do not know what you are talking about. Maybe you have me confused with my twin brother."
"Your twin?" Now his face looked familiar. I must have seen him weeks, if not months ago. I saw that face before in passing, though never really knowing his name. Except for public events, his family never attended our more lavish dinner parties with my father's trusted advisors and their families. But never had I seen someone else that possessed his same face. Then again, the young man's dark hair and aquiline features were not much different from many of the young men in this building.
I blinked again, and the boy I had sworn that was lying to me, left.
I slipped into the shallow hot waters to unwind, which allowed me a chance to reflect on the goings-on of the day. Why did I have to make a big issue out of it? As long as I did not get hurt, this was nothing to stay angry over. As I soaked with my thoughts, I saw Apollus and his friends walking past conversing, although Barbarius was not with him. I imagined they parted ways.
He knelt beside the pool to pat me on the head. "Troy? So, you made it after all. Who brought you here?"
"Good for you. Just be home before dark for the dinner party."
Dinner party! I almost forgot that the dinner party was today. Between thinking about the Quake, the naked slave making a spectacle at the Forum, and being made a spectacle at the pool, it was safe to say the dinner party was the last thing on my mind.
"I heard a diplomat coming from Rome is to set foot in our home. Imagine that," he added with a smirk. He got up to share a laugh with his peers. He walked over to one of the Aurelius brothers who were around his age. "We should explore the other side of this building where the ladies are. Perhaps we might be fortunate and see some beautiful young ladies."
My mind focused on one thing.
'Coming from Rome.'
That was unusual. Were there people from neighboring islands that came to Aegea? I was told yes, but strictly for trade at our port city of Cyrene. Besides my mother's relatives, I did not know anyone from a neighboring island.
"There you are. How did you enjoy your bath?"
There was that voice again. I climbed out of the pool to find the same smiling face of the boy who let me join his game. Unfortunately, he was not done playing games with me. He was also the one that pushed me into the waters, although his voice lacked the same verve as before. He knew who I was, although I knew almost nothing about him except that he was childish. I ignored him and kept on walking towards the changing room.
Undeterred, he began again. "I can understand if you are upset. I apologize for pushing you earlier. You would have talked yourself out of going in."
I broke my silence. "So now you admit your error?"
"Well, yes… I have not seen you since I pushed you into the cold baths. You should have seen your expression!" He let out a laugh.
"How humourous," I said, plastering a grin. "But really who are you?"
"Sorry, I apologize for my rudeness. My name is Romeos. And you must be Troy. I suppose I did not get a good look at you before pushing you," he chuckled.
"So, who was I speaking to before…"
"That must have been my brother Julius."
"He did not seem as light-hearted as you in playing practical jokes," I said, turning my back to him. I entered a nearby changing room, leaving the half-naked boy behind.
I looked around the dingy room, looking for an empty bench for my slave to lay my clothes on. They took all the benches. One boy stood up from his bench clothed in a tunic, and when he turned around, I almost jumped.
"How did you change so quickly?" I blurted. He was half-naked the last time I saw him. Just then, the same young fellow who shared his face entered the changing room with his loincloth. My face reddened. They really were twins!
"I should have believed you."
The two brothers exchanged smirks.
"Well, now that we are all acquainted," Romeos began, wrapping his arm around my shoulder, "we shall no longer be strangers at public engagements. We should meet up again. What are your plans after the baths?" he asked.
I answered. "My family is hosting a dinner party, so I better not keep them waiting."
"That sounds fun," Romeos said, beaming. His brother just nodded.
"It is the same officials that are summoned at the basilica meetings," I said, shrugging. "But there is a new diplomat that will make an appearance. He is not from the island," I said with heightened inflection. Both of their eyes lit up at my last words.
"Where is he from?" Julius asked.
"Rome," I answered.
"Julius and I would love to come," Romeos said. "When is it again?"
Without thinking it through, I invited them to the dinner party.